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Understanding Adam Smith - The Impartial Spectator

This is the 3rd of an eight-part series designed to explain several important aspects of Adam Smith’s writing, or at least correct widespread misconceptions regarding those writings. You can pick up the start of this series here.

In this post and the next two that follow, we introduce and discuss a construct of Smith’s he called the ‘impartial spectator’. Smith opens Moral Sentiments by recognizing the human trait of sympathy as the touchstone and benchmark for human interactions. Smith uses the word ‘sympathy’ throughout Moral Sentiments, while today, and consistent with Smith’s meaning, we use the word ‘empathy’ (cf, The Adam Smith Institute). Through the lens of sympathy-empathy Smith develops the construct of the impartial spectator. The impartial spectator includes the human traits of self-interest and empathy, and becomes the vehicle by which Smith explains how our interpersonal interactions should be governed, including our economic dealings. With that orientation, let’s dive in.

Image copyright Paul Knowlton

Moral Sentiments is a book of behavioral and social psychology that leads us to ethics. Smith introduces natural human emotions and feelings, for ourselves and for others, as the springboard for our actions and self-governance. For example, our natural inclination of self-interest, to put ourselves first, guides us to a sense of prudence. Similarly, our natural inclination of empathy, our feelings for others, guides us to a sense of justice. Imagine considering ourselves as well as the other person in our every interaction. That’s the kind of thinking–acting foundation Smith is building in Moral Sentiments.

Smith recognizes that it’s human nature for our emotions to be inaccurate given the situation. Emotions can be unreasonably interpreted by us and toward our narrow benefit in the case of unfettered self-interest, or against another and to their detriment in the case of withholding justice. In other words, I’m likely to care a lot more about a particular situation if I’m in pain while I’m likely to care much less if only you’re in pain. If fact, if I’m not in pain I may not care at all about a situation.

To counter that human tendency Smith wants us to more accurately align our emotions with the situation from both directions. He wants you and me to see the other’s pain as clearly as we see our own. To that end, Smith constructs an invisible third party – the impartial spectator – who is present at and watching each situation. The impartial spectator, who is emotionally detached from the situation, is imagined by someone as his or her guide and judge of the behavior in which that person is about to engage.

Assume Alice has found Tyrone injured on the side of the road. Tyrone is going to have much stronger emotions about his situation than Alice. In fact, there’s the possibility that while Tyrone is extremely distraught Alice may be so indifferent that she’s considering moving on without giving Tyrone a second thought. The impartial spectator, observing both Tyrone’s concern for himself and Alice’s level of empathy for Tyrone (as imagined by both Alice and Tyrone), is a resource for both but particularly Alice. Alice and Tyrone, each imagining how the impartial spectator will judge their respective actions, adjust their respective emotions to be more in line with the other. What Smith expects is that Alice will be guided by the imagined, impartial spectator and act according to that guidance.

Remember, the impartial spectator is a construct by the guy we call the father of capitalism, to be used for decision-making. In Parts 4 and 5 we flesh out the purpose of the impartial spectator, its connection to the invisible hand, and the implications for those constructs and their connection for a better capitalism. Stay tuned!

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